“You would make a good Dalek.”

It seems to be generally agreed that the long-awaited new series of DOCTOR WHO has been a bit of a triumph. In the space of just a few short weeks the venerable old series, given a thorough 21st century wash??rush-up, has moved smoothly from the cult classic ghetto it had hidden in for too long and become – wait for it – a genuine mainstream television hit, water-cooler TV watched by millions in the UK. Fan opinion is, inevitably, divided over certain aspects of the series and, much as I?e enjoyed his scripts as entertainment, some of Russell T Davies? on-screen efforts seem to suggest, rather curiously, that his understanding of what makes ?reat?DOCTOR WHO is not only a bit different to mine but also to some of his fellow writers. So in that his episodes have been perfectly enjoyable with some genuinely thrilling moments and some fabulous dialogue, there? not been an episode in the new series which will live on in the minds of the show? important new young viewers. Mark Gatiss? Victorian spook drama ?he Unquiet Dead?may have dampened a few junior mattresses but there? not yet been an episode with the potential to paste itself into the memories of impressionable young minds the way so many classic 1960s and 1970s episodes did to those of us really far too old to be watching shows like this any more. Until this one, that is. Until ?alek. ?alek?is not only where this new series finds it feet and walks tall, it? also the episode where DOCTOR WHO comes of age and starts behaving like an adult.

It couldn? really go wrong. The story is simple enough and that? just part of its appeal. ?alek?starts as it means to go on. The TARDIS lands deep underground amidst the clutter and paraphernalia of a museum of extra-terrestrial artefacts, a few years into our future. The TARDIS has picked up a distress call – no long, wandering sequences inside the TARDIS with a frowning Doctor hunched over a flashing console light here, just straight into the action. Before long (and with a crowd-pleasing nod to the show? long heritage courtesy of a nicely-placed Cyber-trophy) the Doctor and Rose have attracted the attentions of some trigger-happy gunmen and they?e marched into the presence of the museum? curator, billionaire Henry Van Statten and, true to the pace of this new series, within ten minutes of the opening credits the Doctor finds himself locked in a dark room with the museum? latest living relic – a metallic creature found in a crater in the Ascension Islands. It? uncommunicative and apparently indestructible. Van Statten calls it “the Metaltron” but as the Doctor tries to communicate with it in the darkness he soon realises that it? something else entirely. Something terrifyingly familiar.

Reinventing a crusty old icon is fraught with difficulties. Recent pop culture is littered with doomed reinventions – THUNDERBIRDS, RANDALL AND HOPKIRK, THE SAINT, PLANET OF THE APES, THE LIVER BIRDS – they all belly-flopped because their makers dared to tamper with the format which made them work in the first place. The BBC didn? play that game and came back to DOCTOR WHO and did nothing more or less than spruce the whole thing up and adapt its style to the ways of modern television. But how do you reinvent the Dalek, the Doctor? most notorious opponent, for an audience brought up on the CGI of modern Hollywood. How can a “space dustbin” impress a post-BUFFY irony-literate crowd? Ron Shearman? clever, taut script does it the only possible way – it presents the Dalek as the same old ruthless killing machine it always was, briefly subverts this familiar characterization and then puts the creature back where it belongs. In doing so, the script tells us much more about the Doctor than we?e ever really known and casts a whole new light on Christopher Eccleston? often-manic performance.

This Dalek is the last of its kind. The Doctor is the last of his kind. Two bitter enemies face off against one another in a spine-tingling sequence which would win BAFTAs in any other genre and Eccleston is absolutely magnetic as his fear of this creature which led to the extinction of his own race turns to an almost insane contempt as he taunts the Dalek which is itself struggling to come to terms that it won? be receiving any more orders and that it is “alone in the Universe.” Most astounding of all – and a testament to Joe Ahearne? thoughtful direction – is the moment where we see the pained face of the Doctor, with the Dalek in the background. “And so are you,” grates the great killing machine.

Naturally the Dalek doesn? stay in confinement for long. Rose, ever the humanitarian, sees the Dalek being tortured and tries to help. In doing so she allows the Dalek to absorb her DNA – and the Dalek suddenly, terrifyingly, reverts to type. It breaks free from its chains, soaks up power from the museum? generators (as well as the entire knowledge of the Internet) and starts doing what it does best. Anyone for a bit of extermination?

This is thrilling stuff from start to finish. Although still a bit slow-moving and cumbersome this Dalek is a pretty awesome piece of kit. Regenerated into a golden engine of destruction this one can sail over stairs with ease, rotate its mid-section for maximum death-dealing effect and – wait for it – fly. The Mill? effects team work wonders here in depicting something Dalek fans have dreamt off since the early days of Dalekmania. Combined with the new capabilities of the old sink-plunger this episode has robbed a generation of lazy comedians and tired TV critics of so many of their hilarious jokes about the impracticability of the Dalek design. Eat laser, losers!

After a pretty comprehensive slaughter – the electrocution of the last of the museum? guards and staff is incredible – it all boils down to a final confrontation between the Dalek and the Doctor. The Dalek, whose desperation at being the last of its kind and knowing nothing else but its prime directive, becomes aware that it is being infected by Rose? humanity and that? the last thing it wants. And yet it opens up its casing – more superb practical special effects – to reveal the grisly, throbbing, rheumy-eyed tentacled thing within, basking in the sunlight for the first and last time. Shearman somehow succeeds in making us feel sympathy for this appalling destroyer and yet not fundamentally altering the nature of the thing. But by placing it in a desperately emotional situation we can? help but feel for it as it craves its final order – the order to destroy itself. And the Doctor? Following the precedent of many episodes in this series – whether by accident or design – the Doctor is largely powerless and the situation is resolved without much input from him. Despite his great intellect and his enormous knowledge of the Universe, his solution to the Dalek problem is terrifying stark and simplistic. He points a big gun at it. Our new Doctor is clearly not the grinning buffoon he appeared to be in episodes like ?ose?and ?liens of London? Perhaps the reason he? afraid of the Daleks goes deeper than just the fact that they wiped out his own species – maybe because, as the Dalek identifies in one of the show? most hair-raising sequences, they?e really not that different. The Doctor, though, is clearly a troubled, insecure man whose days, we now know, are numbered.

So ?alek? as you?l have gathered even if you haven? seen it yet, is an outstanding piece of modern television. It? head and shoulders above everything else we?e seen in the show this year and deserves to be hailed as one of the very best DOCTOR WHO episodes of all time. It? not been easy to reconcile this new series with any of the original run because the shows are so different whilst being completely identical. But this episode is so good because it eschews so much of what Russell T Davies thinks the show should be – there? no bodily function belly-laughing here and precious little humour save the odd one-liner. This script, with its roots buried deep in the Big Finish audio line, is DOCTOR WHO with long trousers, the playground left a long way behind it. Stunning on first viewing, it? awesome the second time around. Quite simply, brilliant.


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